Xi finalises HK election changes, cementing China's control

National security committee will approve candidates for city's LegCo based on vetting by police officers

Published Wed, Mar 31, 2021 · 05:50 AM

Beijing

CHINA finalised a sweeping plan to ensure leaders in Beijing control the outcome of Hong Kong's elections, a move that could deepen already-fraught relations with Western nations.

President Xi Jinping on Tuesday signed orders to amend Hong Kong's Basic Law, the official Xinhua News Agency reported, after revisions were passed by the National People's Congress Standing Committee. The move provides more details on changes approved by China's legislature on March 12 that called for a "review committee" to vet qualifications of election candidates to ensure they are all patriots loyal to the Communist Party in Beijing.

A Hong Kong national security committee will approve candidates for the city's Legislative Council based on vetting by police officers in the national security division, Xinhua said, adding that there would be no legal review of the committee's decisions.

Other changes include expanding the number of Legislative Council seats to 90 from 70, reducing the number of directly elected seats in the chamber to 20 from 35, and granting the city's newly enlarged Election Committee the ability to appoint 40 of the city's lawmakers, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported.

"It will effectively prevent those people who disrupt Hong Kong from entering the Election Committee and Legislative Council through elections," Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong's sole representative to the National People's Congress Standing Committee, told the SCMP. "It will guarantee we elect people who genuinely defend the 'one country, two systems' principle, and are capable of serving the society and citizens, not those who stir up troubles."

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Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and LegCo president Andrew Leung said postponed legislative elections will be held in December.

The moves are the latest in China's efforts to ensure that pro-democracy voices don't have a path to obtain power in Hong Kong following historic and sometimes violent protests in 2019. Mr Xi's call for "patriots" to run the former British colony has neutered the country's democratic institutions while local authorities prosecute activists who have voiced opposition to the Communist Party.

The US, UK, Japan and the European Union have all condemned China's moves, with the Biden administration this month tightening sanctions imposed last year by Donald Trump. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called the recent overhaul of the city's electoral system a "direct attack" on the autonomy China promised to Hong Kong, while UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said the "radical changes" constitute another breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that paved the way for the handover to China in 1997.

China has dismissed Western criticism and stepped up opposition to any organisation deemed to be "interfering" in its "internal matters".

The Communist Party last week backed calls to boycott retailers such as Sweden's Hennes & Mauritz for expressing concern about reports of forced labour in the far west region of Xinjiang.

The Legislative Council's entire pro-democracy bloc resigned en masse last year in protest against efforts to curb dissent, and dozens of former lawmakers and top protest leaders have been jailed on national security charges.

At a regular briefing earlier Tuesday, Ms Lam defended the changes without adding details, saying that opposition candidates can still run as long as they are patriotic. "People who hold different political beliefs, who are more inclined towards democracy or who are more conservative, who belong to the left or belong to the right, as long as they meet this very fundamental and basic requirement, I don't see why they could not run for election," Ms Lam said.

The changes approved by Beijing also expanded the Election Committee that chooses the chief executive to 1,500 people from 1,200 previously, while eliminating the 117 seats on the body previously alloted to district councillors. Pro-democracy politicians had gained control of those local bodies following a landslide local election win in late 2019 that would've given the opposition influence over the selection of the city's leader.

Ms Lam said in a separate briefing on Tuesday afternoon that district councils were excluded from the Election Committee because they were not originally designed to have a political role and had become sources of anti-China organising.

The government aims to introduce an omnibus bill that pushes through the new changes to the Legislative Council in mid-April, and hopes to have the process finished by May in time for voter registration in June, Ms Lam added. BLOOMBERG

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